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Face to Face with Emanuele Giaufret

Binyamin Rose

EU Ambassador Emanuele Giaufret: “Everyone recognizes the connection of the Jewish People with Jerusalem”

Wednesday, December 27, 2017

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A side from his professional duties, Ambassador Emanuele Giaufret has attended to a few important personal matters in Israel.

He married his Korean-born wife at the residence of the Italian embassy in Ramat Gan. The couple’s first son, Lorenzo, was born at Ramat Gan’s Tel Hashomer hospital, at the end of Giaufret’s previous stint in Israel from 2003 to 2007 as head of the European Commission’s political and trade section.

Lorenzo was just as enthused as his father when he learned that the family was headed back to Israel.

“He doesn’t have direct memories of his time in Israel, but our second son was born in New York and the third in Brussels. The kids have always thought it’s important to identify with the place in which they were born,” said Giaufret, who hails from La Spezia, Italy, and is a dual Italian-French citizen and fluent in Italian, French, English, and Spanish.

The EU’s headquarters on the 16th floor of the Paz Tower in Ramat Gan boasts a panoramic view of Tel Aviv and is located across the street from the Tel Aviv Diamond Exchange, where I worked as a money manager for a short time in the mid-1990s.

As Ambassador Giaufret and I were both enjoying the view, we compared notes on how the skyline has expanded with new office towers in recent years.

It’s been a period of dramatic growth in the Israel-EU relationship as well, mainly economically.

Giaufret is the third EU ambassador to Israel that I have interviewed over the years, including Andrew Standley and Lars Faaborg-Andersen. All three like to emphasize growing trade relations, which reached $37.3 billion in 2016, as proof of the strength of bilateral ties — although there is no denying that the politics of the region, and the EU’s perceived slant toward the Palestinian side of the Arab-Israeli conflict, have been and still are major irritants in relations. Those could be exacerbated at a time when US president Donald Trump is upending the Middle East applecart.

What follows is a lightly edited and condensed version of our conversation.

President Trump recently declared Jerusalem to be Israel’s capital, and he also said that the Israeli-Palestinian dispute is not the central issue in the Middle East. The EU’s policy is longstanding and is different from what President Trump has enunciated. My question to you is, is the EU risking being diplomatically isolated in any way or being marginalized now by this longstanding position that it has on the Israel-Palestinian conflict?

I’m not sure whether we’re being marginalized. Our policy has always been that any meaningful negotiation has to take place within the parties and these negotiations should lead us to a peace agreement. We think that the best way of reaching a peace agreement is to establish two states, living side by side in peace and security, and that Jerusalem should be the capital of the two states, which is not an easy task — there have been a lot of difficulties along the way. And this is why we require the contribution of everyone that can contribute to this ultimate goal. Certainly the US, because they are a big partner and they have an important role to play.

So we expect the US to put on the table the peace initiative they have announced. We also think that it would require a contribution of many others, including the European Union, which has invested substantially in trying to promote peace between the Palestinians and the Israelis and also other countries in the region. Jordan and Egypt, who [each] have a peace treaty with Israel, can contribute to a successful peace initiative. And this is why isolation is not what we need, but more coordination and cooperation between the [Israeli and Palestinian] sides first, but also among the international community. 

Has President Trump’s announcement put the EU on the defensive? Is it making them rethink their position on Jerusalem?

No. Not really. We have been very clear on how we look at the issue of Jerusalem. Of course, everyone recognizes the connection of the Jewish People with Jerusalem. It’s a connection that is based on history, religion, emotions, and culture, and this is something that obviously has to be taken into deep consideration. We also know that Jerusalem is an important place for the three major religions. It’s also important for the Palestinians, and for the Arab world in general. This is why the status of Jerusalem has to be negotiated between the sides.

Our position is that these negotiations will have to precede any final decisions on the status of Jerusalem, and we have remained very committed to this position. So, we have taken note of the decision of President Trump. The high representative [Federica Mogherini] expressed the opinion, and the heads of [EU] states and government briefly discussed this at their last meeting in Brussels — that their position on Jerusalem is not changing.

Before leaving Brussels a couple of weeks ago, Prime Minister Netanyahu told reporters on his plane that — and these are his words — the European nations spoil the Palestinians, while President Trump, in recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, told them the truth. Is the EU spoiling the Palestinians?

We have strong relations with the Palestinians in the sense that we have been assisting in building a state. We’re not the only ones doing this. Other important players are engaging with the Palestinians, including the US. We’ve been always indicating to the Palestinians that the way forward is negotiations. We also have highlighted recently that it’s important that, even if they might feel upset by certain decisions, violence always has to be avoided. Violence will not solve anything, and this is a matter we’ve been telling the Palestinians for many years, and we have reiterated it again under the [current] circumstances. Our position today with the Palestinians is very clear. We support building a state, but it has to be a democratic state based on the rule of law, and violence is never a solution.

Does the EU really feel that the Palestinians in their present construction are capable of putting together a democratic state? I don’t see too many examples of that in the Arab part of the world.

I don’t think it’s a given that the Palestinians will easily build up a state that is democratic, that is based on the rule of law. It’s something that will require a lot of effort, primarily from the Palestinians, but also from the international community and any others helping them. That’s our objective.

You’re right in saying that we don’t have so many examples, but we do have a few positive examples in the Arab world. Tunisia is one of them. But we also know how difficult it is to establish a full democracy [while] meeting the social, economic, and political rights of the Tunisians and also building institutions that can respond to the needs of their citizens. It’s really hard work. Democracy cannot be attained in one day.

And of course, the Palestinian-Israeli issue is not the only issue in the Middle East. You were absolutely right in pointing this out before. There are other things, of different origins, that have nothing to do with this specific conflict. But of course, everything becomes closely interlinked. Jordan has been paying the price of the instability in Syria and Iraq, in accepting a lot of refugees. So we have been working with the Jordanian government to try to address some of these problems, and also trying to reinforce their democratic institutions.

Earlier, we were discussing Palestinian state building. The EU has always expressed concern and criticism about illegal Israeli settlements. Now I’m going to quote from a report that was written by David Weinberg in Mosaic a couple of months ago. He says that the EU has financed more than 1,000 illegally built homes for Palestinians and Bedouin in areas such as E1, Gush Etzion, and the Negev. In his words, he wrote, “In short, the EU’s support of the Palestinians has graduated from passive and diplomatic and financial assistance to subversive participation in the Palestinian Authority’s illegal construction ventures.” That’s how he phrases it.

Yes. Well, obviously, we don’t agree with this.

But you are helping the Palestinians in areas that, under the Oslo Agreement, are clearly defined as Israeli areas.

Yes. We have development corporation in Area C, but this is done in coordination with the Israeli authority. And then there are a number of activities that relate to the immediate humanitarian needs of the [Palestinian] population. And these are where we sometimes have some issues with the Israeli authorities. We have a different interpretation of things that need to be done. But here we’re talking about a relatively small type of project. We’re looking at basic needs like trying to provide electricity for education facilities, latrines for sanitation purposes, small schools that are built in a temporary fashion that can provide space for children to receive an education. And this is where we had disagreement with the Israeli authority.

Why not just confine your aid to the Palestinian areas? Why go into Area C, which is supposed to be under Israeli control?

Because Palestinians live there — 300,000 Palestinians live in Area C.* And they also have their own needs. They were there before Oslo, and they need to receive their own education, and their own basic humanitarian needs that must be met. And, of course it would be primarily the responsibility of the Israeli authority to meet these needs. But if they’re not met, someone has to do it. And this is where we have sometimes a bit of disagreement with the Israeli authority. I don’t think you can make a parallel as to the one that was presented in your quote.

* [The EU uses Palestinian population figures for Area C from OCHA — the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs . According to the Oslo Agreement, Area C comprises more than 60% of Judea and Samaria and falls under complete Israeli military and civilian control. Israel has not conducted a census of the Palestinian population of Area C since 1997 and its unofficial estimates of the Palestinian population in Area C range from 90,000 to 150,000 —Ed.]

If Israel were to meet the humanitarian needs, would the EU step back?

Of course. If there are no humanitarian needs because they are met by the Israeli authority, of course, there would be no need for us to intervene.

EU aid to NGOs operating in Israel continues to be a sore spot in Israeli-EU relations, especially when some of that funding goes to NGOs that have supported BDS or incitement against Israel. There is a recent report drafted by Markus Pieper, who is a member of Angela Merkel’s party in Germany. His report calls on the EU to reject any funding for organizations — and again, I’m quoting here — “which demonstrably disseminates untruths or whose objectives are contrary to the fundamental values of the European Union, democracy, human rights and/or strategic commercial and security policy objectives of the European Union institutions.” Other organizations, such as NGO Monitor, often talk about how there’s not enough transparency, in that there’s so much bureaucracy that a lot of times the EU doesn’t even know exactly where the money is going to and what it’s being used for. What sort of reforms would you like to see in this area so that there’s more transparency and that this monkey gets off everyone’s back?

Well, in terms of transparency, I have to say we have very strict rules. All the funding to NGOs, which is usually provided through a local office, are always published on a website, and we do it in a transparent manner. We are not funding any BDS organizations in Israel. Actually, the rules of our peace initiative program specify that BDS activities are not eligible for funding. We have a position on the issue of boycott, which is very clear. We strongly oppose an EU boycott of Israel. We think it’s important that the legitimacy of Israel is not questioned. We also think that some of the BDS activities, particularly on campuses, can even put at risk the safety of Jewish students. So we’re not at all in that game.

Of course, there is a question of freedom of expression and freedom of opinion that has to be respected, and we do respect that. Also, we think that the strength of the Israeli democracy is precisely in the variety of its civil society and the engagement of that civil society in so many different areas of the state activity. We don’t have any other country here that has such a lively civil society. It’s a strength for the image of Israel abroad. I think it brings Israel and the EU much closer to each other, because we have a similar type of landscape within Europe.

We also get criticized often for our own actions by NGOs [in Europe] that we sometimes fund. It’s part of the game. It’s not that we agree with everything the NGOs are saying about the European Union, but it’s important that they exist and they bring their views to the open.

We engage with them and listen to them. I think what is important is that we are able to listen to everyone in Israel. It’s a very diverse country, eight million and something people, and probably double that many opinions. Most of them are very legitimate. You might disagree with them, but you need to listen to what they say. We need to understand where they’re coming from.

I understand what you’re saying, but there are a lot of Israelis who feel that security-wise, we’re at greater risk than Europe, and what the Europeans view as funding for civil society, we look at as funding organizations that are subversive and are trying to harm Israel.

Let me perhaps open a debate on the security. I was in Brussels two weeks ago when the prime minister [Netanyahu] was there. I had forgotten that the Brussels subways and streets are patrolled by the soldiers. You don’t see that in Tel Aviv. Of course, the reason why is that Israel has built a capacity of resilience to address these issues, and things have become more normal. I say this to highlight that in Europe, because of what we have been experiencing recently in terms of terrorist attacks, the perception of security has changed, and it’s a different nature. I don’t want to compare the security risks of Europe and the security risks of Israel. I’m fully aware that they’re of a different magnitude. I’m just comparing the perception of people in the streets vis-א-vis security.

We wouldn’t fund any organization that would fundamentally question the legitimacy of the existence of the State of Israel. Israel is a legitimate state in the family of nations. We want Israel to prosper in that family. We are supportive of all the efforts that the Israeli government has been doing in the international community to affirm this position, and we welcome the successes that we’ve seen in a wide range of countries that have contact with Israel, and the inroads it has made in Africa, Latin America, in Asia. We’ve seen the desire of Israel to engage within the United Nations. This is not an area that is easy for Israel and we hear lots of criticism, and we understand why there is this criticism here. I will sit with all the countries of the region, Europeans and Arab, as part of our effort to try to assist Israel in strengthening its position and being recognized as it should be recognized, as a legitimate country in all the nations. 

(Originaly featured in Mishpacha, Issue 691)

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